Trying to make out what’s going on with the Greek economy at the moment is much like attempting to get a good night’s sleep when there is a clutter of pregnant cats outside your window. Somewhere between Greece’s emergency lenders, its government and its opposition parties, reality has been lost and it has become difficult to judge the privatization plans – which have prompted all the scratching, biting and catcalls – on their merits, if they have any.
When he was in Athens a few months ago, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, likened himself to a doctor, called in to save the sick man of Europe: debt-ridden Greece. But recent developments suggest that what Greece really needs is not a doctor but a psychologist. More than anything else, the country is suffering from a serious case of schizophrenia. Certainly, the PASOK government and its main opposition, New Democracy, have displayed a worrying mental instability and lack of clear thinking in their reaction to the tactless statement by representatives of the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (the troika) on February 11 about Greece needing to raise 50 billion euros over the next five years from the sale of state assets.
The government’s delayed response to the troika’s statement made it seem as if Prime Minister George Papandreou and his team had stirred from a deep slumber. It was a slow, clumsy comeback that clouded the real issue. PASOK had every reason to feel aggrieved about the troika now not only shaping but also announcing Greek economic policy, and not even paying lip service to the country’s sovereignty, as compromised as it may be. But this was a point that had to be made – as forcefully as possible – behind closed doors. Trying to play tough in public with the organizations that are lending you 110 billion euros and preventing you from going bankrupt really doesn’t cut a swath. Nobody in Greece, or anywhere else, will for a minute think that angry words via the media will shift the balance of power between the government and its creditors. It’s clear to everyone who wears the pants in this particular relationship.
The outburst that emanated first from the keyboard of government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis and then the mouths of various PASOK members had an immediate negative impact because the troika said its February 11 news conference would also be its last, meaning that its representatives would no longer have to answer questions or justify their decisions in public – hardly a victory for transparency or democracy. Beyond that, the jingoistic tone of the government’s retort, which suggested that only the Greek people had the right to order ministers around, did nothing for informing the debate over privatization.
Greece has debt of more than 300 billion euros to pay off. As of 2013 its emergency loan installments will end and it cannot expect to receive cash injections from the EU and the IMF forever. It has to find a way of tackling, on its own, the debt it built up through years of irresponsible governance. One of the options available is to seek to profit from state assets. To couch this debate in nationalist terms is irresponsible and counter-productive. Papandreou’s assertion, for instance, that the government would pass a law forbidding anyone in power from selling state land without the approval of Parliament is virtually meaningless. Apart from a token symbolic value, it has no real substance because any government at any given time, unless it’s a coalition, will have a majority in Parliament and will therefore be able to approve any sale it needs or wants.
Also, it seems a bit rich for Papandreou to make bold claims about selling public land in the same week that a think-tank named after his father, the Andreas Papandreou Institute of Strategic and Development Studies (ISTAME), said that a study it carried out found that 45 percent of the state’s land had been snatched by land-grabbers and that Greece would be lucky if it could find 100 pieces of prime real estate to sell. In Greece, it seems, it is fine for public land to be taken over by opportunists, profiteers, monasteries, or whoever else it may be, but it is anathema for it to be sold to pay off the debt that burdens every Greek taxpayer.
Determined to prove that it can beat PASOK at its game, New Democracy displayed an even more pronounced split personality by both castigating the government for being supplicant to the troika but at the same time saying that it should have started selling off state assets much sooner. This neurosis was epitomized by ND leader Antonis Samaras in his speech to the party’s political committee on Saturday when, in almost the same breath, he accused PASOK of handing the keys to Greece over to the troika and proudly reminded people that he had suggested that 50 billion euros could be earned from privatizations as far back as last summer.
ND’s consternation has combined very well with the government’s muddled thinking to leave Greeks with little idea about where the country stands, what assets it has and how they could be used to help Greece stand on its own two feet. There has been little talk of which, if any, state enterprises could be sold off, of which publicly owned companies investors might be willing to take over the management or if the ambitious 50-billion-euro target is even remotely achievable. Most importantly of all, there has been absolute silence on the question of what the drawbacks to privatization might be, whether the medicine being administered to Greece by Dr Strauss-Kahn and his associates is actually any good for the country.
Privatization may be a way of Greece taking ownership of its own debt problems and an injection of capital would allow it to buy back its own bonds at a discount, thereby helping pay off a sizable chunk of what it owes. However, this should not disguise the fact that privatization comes with many deep pitfalls. Britain, which was the first European Union country to embark on widespread sell-offs in the 1980s, is another country that has been toying with the idea of privatization over the past few days. Prime Minister David Cameron is set to present within the next two weeks proposals to allow private firms to bid for contracts to run virtually all public services.
This is light years beyond what Greece is currently considering but it’s a reminder that Britain is testament to why privatization is often not in the public’s greater interest. The first wave of sell-offs in the early 1980s included Jaguar cars, Rolls Royce, British Gas and British Steel, signaling the beginning of the end for the country’s industrial base and its potential to create jobs. This was followed up in the 1990s with the disastrous privatization of the railways, which led to a more expensive and inferior service. The Labour government of the late 1990s allowed the private sector to extend its reach through a series of Public Private Partnerships (PPP), which meant that by the beginning of the last decade key services such as healthcare and education were largely reliant on private investment, which often came with some very dangerous strings attached, such as private contractors being able to sell their contracts to build public infrastructure or run services to subcontractors. This whole process led to some firms that were particularly successful in winning these contracts transforming themselves from financial small-fry to profit-making behemoths in just a few years. From a Greek point of view, though, the most significant lesson to be drawn from the British example is the implication that the PPP schemes had for British debt. The partnerships were essentially a form of borrowing – private firms were given contracts to build or operate for a fixed-term in return for reaping the revenues from the project. In 2003, the Treasury estimated that the government had accumulated 110 billion pounds worth of debt from its PPP initiatives.
As Greece considers how to exploit its assets, its schizophrenia will only cloud its judgement. Privatization is neither a panacea for the country’s ills, nor – if approached with maturity – is it a threat to national sovereignty. It’s a policy that should not be adopted just for the sake of it, nor avoided just to make a populist gesture. It’s a strategy that should only be followed if it’s in the public interest to do so. Sadly, nothing that has happened over the last few days suggests that anyone – be it the troika, the government or New Democracy – really has the public interest at heart.